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Capturing the Signs of a Changing D.C.—Before They Disappear

Where the biggest demographic shifts are happening along the city's Green line, the buildings are changing with them.

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New, luxury housing next to the city's popular Florida Ave Grill which opened in 1944. (Mark Byrnes)

Since moving back to the D.C. area just over two years ago, I still catch myself feeling surprised by how fast this city is changing right now.

When my family and I first moved here in March of 1995, the District of Columbia's population had dropped down to 580,000, from a 1950 peak of 802,000. With a national image still marred by the crack epidemic that swept through the city in the 1980s, the suburbs were the only option my middle-class parents ever considered.

Thus removed from the city’s problems and too young to appreciate its history, I remember being fascinated by the Metrorail map I’d see so often on the Red line trains we’d take from our Maryland suburb.

The then-new Green line, which cut through the heart of the city heading north and south was in fact so new, it wasn’t yet complete. Two under-construction stations just north of downtown interrupted the smooth, Lance Wyman-designed lines on the map I started to memorize as an 8-year-old.

A liquor store in Columbia Heights shows its age with a faded Super Bowl XXVI poster from 1992. (2014)

At that point in my life, not only had I never taken a ride on the system’s newest line, I couldn’t imagine a reason to end up at any of its stations. Many of the neighborhoods north and south of downtown along the Green line were still suffering from years of lingering poverty and crime. Like too many kids living in Montgomery County, Maryland, in the 1990s, city adventures were limited to class trips and visits to my parents’ offices. 

By the time I graduated from high school and left town in 2005, D.C. was already changing. The neighborhood around the 9:30 Club off of U Street NW was becoming a destination for a new influx of young professionals. Chinatown, served by the Green, Yellow, and Red lines, had become D.C.’s answer to Times Square.

When I moved back to the area seven years later, new apartments and bars filled with recent college graduates had popped up along the Green line, in places like Columbia Heights and Petworth. 

The site of a future mixed-use building on 14th Street NW. (2014)

I soon moved into these neighborhoods myself. Today, D.C.’s population has grown to an estimated 646,000, and as of 2011, no longer has a majority African-American population. The city was 27.4 percent non-Hispanic white in 1990. Today? 35.5* percent.

Where the biggest demographic shifts appear to be happening, the buildings are changing with them. Small, typically single-use structures that endured decades of the city's toughest days now seem destined for demolition or dramatic renovations. Scaffolding around new, often luxury residential buildings promote lifestyles that have little connection to the history around them.

When viewed next to their new neighbors or even by themselves, these sites—and the signs affixed to them—reflect the stark disconnect between the old and new versions of D.C.

A new residential building near the U Street Metro station is preserving the sign of an auto repair shop that once stood on the site. A new bar near Mount Vernon Square has since removed the "Louis' Rogue Club" sign, for a former strip club, that once hung on the facade. (2013)
Two very different-looking neighbors at 14th and Wallach Place NW. (2014)
A building on 14th and T Street NW as seen in 2012 (left) and 2014 (right). 
A construction project near Mount Vernon Square station from 2013 (left, middle) to 2014 (right).
The door of a new bar near 7th and Q street NW, not far from the Shaw Metro station, and what appears to be its design inspiration—a novelty store at 14th and Rhode Island NW. (2014)
A former church (right) next to a new residential building near the U Street Metro station. (2013)
Construction underway at 14th Street and Florida Ave NW. (2014)
New and old around Petworth's Metro station. (2014)
New structures towering over their neighbors near U Street (left) and Petworth (right). (2014)
Construction scaffolding around a luxury residential project at 14th and U streets NW. (2013)
Renderings and promotional signage on display in front of construction projects near Mount Vernon Square station. (2013)
The view of Florida Ave NW through scaffolding of a mixed-use, residential building under construction near the U St and Shaw metro stations. (2014)

Correction: This article originally stated that 42.9 percent of Washington D.C.'s population is non-Hispanic white. It is 35.5 percent.

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